Morelia, Mexico -- I've been to some great old colonial cities while working and bumming around Latin America the past 25 years. But for my money, none is more evocative of times gone by than this, the capital of Michoacan state.
I've sat in Morelia's Jardin de las Rosas, a 17th century plaza surrounded by the hemisphere's oldest music conservatory on one side and the Baroque Las Rosas convent church on the other, half expecting carriages, soldiers or religious flagellants to appear at any time. That's how strong the sense of time standing still is in my favorite corner of one of my favorite cities.
So when my kids, Maria Helene and Christian, both in their 20s, visited from California last December, I chose Morelia as an escape from Mexico City, the fast-paced and polluted capital where I live and work.
Michoacan, southwest of Mexico's capital, is embarrassingly rich in history,
crafts and natural beauty. Day trips from here easily fill a long weekend or more: migrating monarch butterflies, the pre-Columbian ruins of Tzintzuntzan and the cobbled streets of Patzcuaro all are nearby. But for me, Morelia is a destination in itself, and its historic core district exerts the strongest pull.
Founded in 1541 and laid out in 1570, Morelia retains a pleasingly archaic character and proportion, even as so many other Latin American historic centers have been erased by redevelopment, earthquakes and neglect.
The city spent its first 286 years as Valladolid, then in 1827 renamed itself Morelia after native son and revolutionary hero Jose Maria Morelos.
Morelia's historic district encompasses 120 blocks and spans more than four centuries, from the austere and fortresslike San Francisco church and monastery, begun in 1530, to the eclectic Palace of Justice, built in the 1880s by a free-thinking Belgian engineer named Guillermo Wodon de Sorinne. Vigilantly towering over the scene is Morelia's eponymous cathedral, one of Mexico's three largest and, I think, the most beautiful, best illuminated and most dramatic.
Framing the city's east side is perhaps its most striking relic: a mile- long limestone aqueduct that was completed in the late 1700s but hasn't funneled water into the city since 1910. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Morelia a World Heritage Site in 1991, an honor given to places whose historic significance and authenticity merits global recognition.
Arriving in Morelia's new bus station five miles east of town after a four- hour luxury bus ride from Mexico City, we quickly became aware of its ideally mild and dry climate. At 6,300 feet, Morelia is 1,000 feet lower than Mexico City and so a bit warmer. Then, after the taxi ride into town, came the pleasant shock of streets devoid of ambulantes, or vendors, who clog many Mexican cities.
Our choice of hotels was the only misstep of the trip. The Hotel Catedral, where we stayed for three nights opposite the cathedral, was noisy and poorly run. But in a subsequent trip, I got it right. I checked into the Hotel Virrey de Mendoza, a colonial mansion three centuries old. In the historic heart of the city and loaded with colonial charm, it was converted in 1939 from a private home into a hotel named for the viceroy who founded Morelia. Its high ceilings, stained-glass atrium (covering what once was a courtyard) and collection of antique furniture produce just the right Old Mexico atmosphere.
My bad luck in lodging choice during the visit with my kids was a minor setback. Once we arrived, we were quickly swept up in Morelia's history: It is regarded as the ideological cradle of Mexican independence.
We came across tableaus of Morelia history painted in murals in many public buildings by Alfredo Zalce, who, at 94, is one of the last survivors of the legendary generation of Mexican muralists that include Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco. Zalce's earthy, vivid colors and harmonious compositions capture the essence of the Michoacan aesthetic.
On our first day, my son and daughter made a trip to the special forest preserve in eastern Michoacan state where, from October through March, monarch butterflies complete their 3,000-mile migration from as far away as Canada. It was a three-hour bus ride to Angangueo, then an hour trek up to see the insects clinging to tree branches in swarms.
While the kids were taking in nature, I was taking the waters in the mineral baths of Los Azufres National Park. Also in the mountains east of Morelia, amid geothermal power plants and sulfur mines, the Laguna Larga resort has two outdoor pools, as well as four thermal baths across the street and up the hill from its wood cabanas.
Locals favor the no-frills facility; you pay $3 and bring your own towel. And like the trip to see the butterflies, it's worth the time and expense (a 90-minute, $60 taxi ride) to get there. The drill at Laguna Larga is the same as at any thermal bath: sit, soak and let the mineral waters work their tranquilizing magic.
The next morning, I took an early walking tour of the central city with enthusiastic, bilingual guides. The guide on my tour, Alfredo de la Cruz Ibarra, told me how the city grew wealthy from local gold and copper mining. By the 1700s it was one of the Catholic church's three largest administrative centers in Mexico, attracting a dozen religious orders to build monasteries and convents, most still standing.
Perhaps the most unusual remnant of Morelian times gone by is the three- quarter-mile-long Calzada Fray Antonio de San Miguel, a tree-lined processional walkway completed in the mid-1700s that is paved with limestone and lined with stone benches. The Calzada connected the city to a shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but now it's a beautiful pedestrian causeway -- and a favorite trysting zone for local adolescents.
The next morning, we went to the Michoacan Regional Museum, a remarkable storehouse of history. We cut our visit short to run to the Casa de Artesanias,
the state-run handicrafts store occupying an entire building (a former monastery) next to San Francisco Church. The government sponsors contests among Michoacan's craftspeople, with the winning products earning shelf space at the artisans shop.
There we saw an unbelievable variety of beautiful Michoacan crafts: guitars made in Paracho, intricately designed hemp floor mats from Patzcuaro, baskets from Santa Cruz Tanaco, ceramics from Zinapecuaro and wooden masks from Ocumicho.
On our last night, we visited Tzintzuntzan, half an hour's drive from Morelia. Under a full moon lighting Lake Patzcuaro and the archaeological park's five yacates, or pyramids, we saw a fiery juego de pelota in what was once a ceremonial court. Teams of 20 youths batted around an ignited pumpkin- size ball in a re-enactment of the Purepecha Indian ceremony of "new fire," traditionally held at the beginning of a new year after the use of fire had been banned for five days.
We ended our four-day trip having just scratched the surface of Morelia and Michoacan.